Beyoncé had left the stadium in triumph. Her sultry renditions of “Crazy in Love” and other hits had culminated in the surprise onstage reunion of Destiny’s Child. But just a few minutes later, during the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans in 2013, half the lights went out in the Superdome. For 34 minutes, the stadium plunged into semidarkness, complete mayhem headed off only by backup systems that kicked in to keep the stadium and 71,000 spectators in half light.
A disaster, of sorts—or at least it could have been. While the world watched a half-dark stadium, those of us who plan for worst-case scenarios saw the glory of a stadium in half light. Imagine the alternative, we thought. What had staved off a worse outcome? A fail-safe system—a set of mechanisms that activates when something goes wrong—had felt the stresses caused by some electric disruption that was turning the lights off in the Superdome. The fail-safe system had prevented a cascade of other losses.
Today, as a global pandemic sweeps across 50 states, and COVID-19 case counts spiral upward, America’s fail-safe mechanisms are being strained like never before. The United States has crashed, and the arrival of a novel coronavirus is only one of the causes. The other is that command of the American effort against the pathogen fell to a president unprepared for the challenge and overwhelmed by the demands of his office. The situation is legitimately grounds for despair; we are in the half dark. But some lights are still on, thanks to the sheer grit of those—the governors and mayors, the public- and private-sector experts and operations managers, the corporate CEOs and nonprofit officials—now serving as a counterweight to a president unmoved by what is happening to the United States.
All of these people surely wish the president would act differently. But they also know they cannot change him. They have no time to spare, and they know what they must do—individually and collectively—to minimize the damage.
Donald Trump likes to portray himself and his administration as victims of some unknown and unprecedented invasion. Yet while this virus is new, crisis management is not. Ideally, America’s pandemic response would be coordinated by the federal government based on emergency plans, training efforts, and simulation exercises created in the aftermath of previous public-health crises, such as SARS, H1N1, and Ebola. The basic approach to managing a pandemic—recently validated by other countries that appear to have gotten past the peak of their coronavirus outbreak—is to identify and treat people who are infected, send a surge of resources to the hardest-hit places, and buy time for mitigation measures to bring down the infection rate. The relevant plans all envision a strong federal role in supporting state and local responses.
In a variety of ways, Trump has explicitly ignored this well-established national guidance. He continues to look for the easy exit—the nonexistent vaccine, the miracle treatment. His administration circulates fanciful numbers about the availability of tests. He abandons international cooperation because of his insistence that our allies call COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus.” He disdains scientists and seeks advice from A-Rod. He seeks vengeance against governors who do not praise him lavishly. Most of his supposed contributions are utter madness. On Saturday, the president tweeted bizarrely about imposing a quarantine in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Before he backed off later in the day, officials in those states wasted hours trying to figure out what on Earth he might have meant.
Fail-safes exist not to fix the underlying problem, but to limit losses. Amid all the disorganization and dysfunction, people are working purposefully to save lives. As Trump promised a quick treatment to solve our woes, a primary adviser—Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—immediately stepped in to quash the speculation and urge citizens to take shelter instead. As Trump floated an Easter deadline for the end of Americans’ isolation, governors extended social-distancing rules into May. “Yeah, no,” Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, said Friday. “We’re not going to be up and running by Easter. No.” (Yesterday, Trump finally gave up that pretense.)
As Trump pretends he is a war president—but only belatedly invokes the Defense Production Act to get a single company, GM, to manufacture a single commodity in the months to come—the leaders of companies such as 3M and China’s Alibaba work through the logistics of getting supplies to those who need them. As Trump says that the states need to take the lead during a national catastrophe that hurts them all, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the military quietly move medical assets to prepositioned areas, based on long-standing emergency-management principles that require no presidential authorization.
As Trump touts dubious remedies, private laboratories are showing signs of tremendous progress in both high-volume testing capacity and future treatments. As Trump leads press conferences whose apparent purpose is to draw attention to himself, a nation turns its focus to Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, whose daily situational-awareness reports highlight the urgency of the effort and offer the public a reminder of what hands-on leadership looks like.
Trump is now the distraction in chief. The individuals and agencies who are tuning him out and going on with their jobs aren’t quite a “deep state”—the supposedly nefarious national-security bureaucrats whom Trump believes are out to get him—but their efforts do have the feel of an apparatus rushing into a vacuum. This alternative to national leadership is not ideal, and if Trump were suddenly to step up, great. But he won’t, so a hodgepodge of federal bureaucrats, state and local leaders, private companies, and average citizens will keep on planning around his deficiencies.
Because of Trump, the damage that the United States suffers will be worse than it had to be. Yet while the chaos that he engenders is harmful, it is not dispositive. The stadium is still half-lit.
After the Super Bowl in 2013, Beyoncé and her flashy stage show were blamed for the Super Bowl blackout, but it wasn’t her fault. An investigation showed that an electrical device that had been installed specifically to prevent a power outage had, ironically, caused one instead. That insufficiently tested device had failed, but banks of lights stayed on because the standard backup apparatus was ready. The outcome was not ideal, but sometimes the backup system is the only protection you’ve got.
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